Monday, February 24, 2014

Alejandro Escovedo and Peter Buck Join Forces for a Good But Not R.E.M.arkable Show -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Alejandro Escovedo
w/ Peter Buck & band
as opening act & backing band
Lincoln Hall, Chicago
February 22, 2013

I love Alejandro Escovedo.

Ever since becoming acquainted around the release of his excellent 1996 album, With These Hands, I have bought virtually all of his solo albums as well as a compilation from True Believers, one of his preceding bands (along with The Nuns and Rank and File).

I have consistently recommended Escovedo's music to friends, whether directly or online, and including Saturday night have now him live seven times in a variety of venues.

But while I will always be open to seeing Alejandro on additional occasions--and given that he is now 63 and survived a life-threatening scare from hepatitis, I can only hope he will continue to swing through Chicago for years to come--especially without a brand new album, I didn't acutely feel the need to catch another of his gigs at this point.

Yet the moment I was alerted to the Lincoln Hall show by email--despite meandering around Las Vegas at the time--I instantly bought a ticket.

This was because the show was promoted as Alejandro Escovedo and Peter Buck.

I didn't initially know if they would be playing together or separately, but it didn't matter.

Though it's possible he could have walked down Lincoln Avenue largely unrecognized, Buck was--for the entirety of their amazing 31-year run--the guitarist for R.E.M.

With Buck's jangly guitar style being a defining element of the Athens, GA band's early sound, R.E.M. progressed from being the prime example of "college rock" to worldwide superstardom.

I don't think I'm saying anything controversial to suggest that R.E.M. was crucial to the birth of the alternative rock genre, and not only was I a big fan, but Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles are the only two rock artists I definitively like more.

Buck never sang in R.E.M., with vocalist Michael Stipe also being the chief lyricist, but fans like me know how central he was to the band's collaborative songwriting approach and, thus, numerous great songs and albums.

Since R.E.M. officially split in 2011, I've noted that Buck has stayed somewhat musically active in various low-key ensembles, but I had only really paid attention on the couple occasions when R.E.M. bassist (and sporadic lead singer) Mike Mills joined him on stage for old times sake--such as in this clip that also features original drummer Bill Berry.

I know Buck just last week released a solo album--titled I Am Back To Blow Your Mind Once Again--but had not sought it out before Saturday's show (so far it seems to only be available on vinyl). I also didn't pay much attention to his 2012 solo disc. But having learned that he would open the concert with his band, who would then back Escovedo, I was admittedly as excited to see him as I was the headliner.

Now, before I get to my somewhat disappointed take on both performances, let me state that I was not expecting an ersatz R.E.M. show.

But I doubt that I was the only one in attendance drawn--at least in part--by Buck's legacy, and I don't think hoping for perhaps one classic R.E.M.embrance in each or either set equates me with a boor who constantly screams, "Begin the Begin!" (That was only in my head.)

As it was, over nearly 3 hours of music there were no obvious R.E.M.inders of Peter Buck, the groundbreaking guitarist and co-songwriter for one of rock's most inventive bands.

Even in his own set, he primarily played rhythm guitar with no lead fills; my guess is that even serious R.E.M. fans may well have been unaware of his presence had they strictly heard the show. 

That said, I valued seeing the man and his trademark Rickenbacker guitar.

Although it was clear early in his set why Peter Buck never sang with R.E.M., he was an amiable presence--often addressing the crowd in Spanish, poorly, for some odd reason--and his strong band included Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin, longtime sidemen with his former group, as well as Kurt Bloch, who played much more lead guitar than Buck.

It was fun to watch Buck's hourlong set, which was comprised almost entirely of songs from his two solo albums including "Life Is Short," "10 Million BC," "Vaso Loco," "Monkey Mask," "I'm Alive," "On the Planet of the Apes," "West of Sunset," a blues cover of Hound Dog Taylor's "Give Me Back My Wig" and a Ramonesque romp through "Gotta Get Outta the House."

Had I no clue who was onstage, I sense I would have entertained but not wowed, so while it was nice to see Peter Buck back in action, I can't profess to have been overly impressed with anything I heard in particular.

After a brief break, Buck and this three bandmates served as the backing band for Escovedo, along with Chicago violinist Susan Voelz, an old collaborator of Alejandro's from Austin, Texas.

Escovedo has always been an excellent, evocative songwriter and nothing he performed contradicted this. Opening with "Can't Make Me Run" from 2012's Big Station, he proceeded to run through a 10-song main set balancing sparse ballads and gritty rockers from across his solo career.

Highlights included "Tender Heart," "Sensitive Boys"--nicely dedicated to Alejandro's brother Javier, Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the '80s band The Gun Club and all touring musicians who have spent much time riding around in vans--"Chelsea Hotel '78," "Castanets," "Always a Friend" and a terrific set-closing cover of Neil Young's "Like A Hurricane."

For his encore, Escovedo came onstage with just violinist Voelz for a sweet take on his own "Rosalie" and the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes." The latter was a song R.E.M. had covered--it's on Dead Letter Office, a 1987 collection of outtakes--so not having Buck also onstage seemed strange to me.

As did ending the night with a full band version of Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes," a terrific song to be sure, but would it have killed anyone to rip through R.E.M.'s vaguely Texas-sounding "Driver 8," or "The One I Love," which would seem to suit Escovedo's range and style?

Again, perhaps I'm overly stuck on R.E.M. and not intending to demean Escovedo as the night's deserved headliner nor Buck's attempts to do something new.

But it felt to me that Alejandro Escovedo failed to fully capitalize on the legend onstage with him.

Does anyone think that if Alejandro was ever accompanied by Keith Richards, he wouldn't play "Sway" or "Beast of Burden"--Rolling Stones songs Escovedo has often covered--and/or blaze through other Rolling Stones classics?

I'm not suggesting--nor I doubt would he--that Peter Buck is anywhere near as good a guitarist as Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton or Eddie Van Halen, but in his own realm, he has been nearly as important and influential.

So not to even throw the audience a blast-from-his-past bone or two--especially as his promoted presence helped sell out a venue Escovedo hasn't always on his own--seems meriting of my disappointment and mild chagrin.

Especially as, even taking Escovedo's set for what it was, I didn't feel he was as terrific as I've seen in the past, including at the same place in 2010.

Perhaps he and Buck's band are still in the early stages of feeling each other out on this brief tour, but to me that's all the more reason to keep things from seeming perfunctory by surprising me with "Strange" (an R.E.M. song that itself is a Wire cover).  

Am I glad I went? Sure.

Would hearing an R.E.M. chestnut or two really have made the show that much better or changed my life? I doubt it.

But devoid of anything overtly special, was it truly a R.E.M.arkable evening? Per the great "So. Central Rain," "I'm sorry," but, no.

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